OLANCHA, Calif. - Crystal Geyser's 100,000-square-foot bottling facility sticks out incongruously in this Owens Valley town of some 200 people.
late 1980s, the company spent two years tasting water from all over
the West, searching for a spot to build a new bottling plant.
Crystal Geyser, one of the nation's top sellers of bottled water,
finally decided to locate their plant alongside the main highway in
this high desert town.
"Olancha had the
best-tasting water they could find," said a company
Crystal Geyser is not the only company
attracted to Olancha by the exceptionally pure and good-tasting
water that courses down from the Sierra Nevada range and collects
Brewing giant Anheuser-Busch
bought a ranch next door to where the Crystal Geyser plant now
stands, because it hopes to export water to Southern California.
And the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which already
owned most of the land and water rights in the valley, has bought
hundreds of acres of additional ranchland at
"Olancha is the water capital of
California," Inyo County Supervisor Paul Payne
But this water mecca is feeling the
downside of its popularity. Crystal Geyser, town residents and
county officials worry that new water extractions could seriously
deplete the aquifer here, or ruin their wells with brackish water
drawn from beneath the nearby dry Owens Lake
Crystal Geyser and Anheuser-Busch are
currently wrangling over the groundwater beneath their properties.
In a letter to Inyo County supervisors, Crystal Geyser president
Pete Gordon wrote that the company was "extremely concerned about
the very large recent increase in groundwater pumping" by
Anheuser-Busch. If the pumping causes an increase in salinity in
their water, "then Crystal Geyser will not be able to continue its
present water-bottling operation at this site," he
The company is so concerned about the
Anheuser-Busch plans that it bought another ranch south of town,
hoping to interest the brewing company in extracting groundwater
from there instead, according to an Inyo County
This area's water is especially pure
because it consists of Sierra snowmelt that doesn't travel far
before collecting underground and rising to the surface, said Inyo
County Water Department Director Greg
"There's nothing between the mountains and
Owens Lake which would pollute the water," he said. "It comes off
the granite and doesn't go through much alluvium, and it isn't in
the ground that long."
James said that bottlers
and water exporters are also attracted here because the water
supply has proved to be reliable even during drought years, and
because it is one of the few places in the valley where private
land is still available. The town's proximity to major markets and
shipping facilities in Southern California is another attraction
Locals have been wary of the large
beverage companies and would-be water exporters coming to do
"When you have a small community
of 200 and you have (Los Angeles) Anheuser-Busch and Crystal Geyser
on your hands, isn't that a little frightening?" asked Melinda
Salmonds, longtime resident and chairwoman of the local community
services district. "Everybody is on their own wells. People were
scared to death that they could take so much water that we would
There is one plan for Olancha's
water that pleases locals. A Los Angeles entrepreneur named Rod
Bone wants to locate a 20,000-square-foot brewery here, producing a
million cases annually of "Bone Dry Beer."
County officials say it would provide jobs in
the sparsely populated southern end of the county while using a
relatively small amount of water.
water exporting scheme recently proposed by a town resident has
raised ire here. The project, known as Rancho Olancha, would pump
groundwater from a lot in a residential area of the town into
tanker trucks for export. It has been fiercely opposed by neighbors
and other locals, and has not been well received by county
officials. Residents said it would deplete their wells and cause a
major disturbance in the neighborhood without contributing a thing
to the community.
writes from Bishop,